For over 30 years, they’ve logged millions of miles across the U.S. to demonstrate their unconventional style of grilling to hundreds of thousands of fans.
Mark Mathewson and Gary Merrill, better known as Mad Dog and Merrill Midwest Grillin’ Buddies, are funky and festive, wildly quirky, absent-minded yet attentive, with an underlying mission to make grilling’ fun.
They draw you in to their grilling demonstrations with their backyard antics and conversations and keep you there as you witness food combinations and grilling ideas clearly conceived by thinking out of the box. Outlandish stories, unexpected one-liners and incredible pizzazz with cooking on the outdoor grill are all the payoff for sticking around.
Where did all this tomfoolery start? Right here, in the backyards of New London.
Mad Dog and Merrill met in 1978 at a family reunion, when Merrill showed up married to Mad Dog’s cousin, Diane. They saw each other at those functions for a few years before anything about grilling started.
“Merrill looked like Ben Franklin back then to me, only he wore a checkered sport coat!” recalls Mad Dog.
Prior to their family connection, Mad Dog, son of Tom and Jan Mathewson, had graduated from New London High School in 1974. Following his father’s lead, Mad Dog attended UW-Milwaukee for two years and obtained his insurance certificates. He then sold insurance in New London.
Gary Merrill is a product of Illinois, and the small city of Watzeka. He returned there after attending college for acting. Merrill was hired by New London Menswear and moved here, where he met and married Diane Arnold.
Mad Dog and Merrill exchanged pleasantries at family functions before Merrill asked Mad Dog to ride shotgun at a grilling demonstration in Chicago in 1981. Merrill had been hired for his acting abilities by the Weber Company and demonstrated new grills at True Value stores in northern Illinois.
“I had an old Chevette with a broken passenger seat that we drove to Illinois on the weekends. I propped a cooler in the backseat to keep it up so Mad Dog could sit upright!” recalls Merrill with a chuckle.
“This was prior to gas grills, remember,” said Mad Dog. “We lit a fire in the grill outside and once the coals got gray, had to wheel the hot grills into the store to throw a ham on so the store would smell great.”
Weber came out with a round gas grill in the early ’80s. Merrill recalls selling 30-40 gas grills a weekend once they came on the scene.
Mad Dog recalls the learning curve they endured on their way to becoming a household grilling name. “One of the first things we did together here in New London was to raffle off a cookout through the Jaycee’s. We were members, and it sounded like a good way to make some money for the club. Fluff Barrington won the raffle and we massacred the prime rib and burnt the vegetables. I had never grilled vegetables before!”
After the Jaycees debacle, the pair got their first booking for the WYNE Food Show at the Tri-County Ice Arena. “We told them we had done live stage shows before – NOT! We just went in there and winged it. We knew Miller Brewing was there so we did a cheesy beer spread to impress them. A chicken backrub and massage segment went well – people kinda liked it,” Mad Dog recalled. Because of that show, LBJ Distributors asked the pair to socialize and cook at events Miller sponsored. It kept them afloat for the first five years of their career.
“Because we used beer in our cooking, we were each allotted 15 cases of beer a month – to use in demonstrations,” recalls Merrill. “We submerged an entire turkey in beer. Not a lot of people would do that.”
The two appeared on WLUK Fox 11 TV every Friday, sponsored by Copp’s food stores. “We grilled seafood – that was huge for Copp’s back then, with their fresh seafood counter,” said Merrill.
“For all the old timers out there like me,” said Mad Dog, “they may recall a band from Chilton called Mark Born and the Flash who we appeared with many times in the 80s. Kevin and Eddie still play in the area. They were phenomenal singers.”
“It was a good time,” says Mad Dog with memories flooding into his head. “We got paid to socialize. We were billed as a combined weight of 500 pounds – like that was supposed to be something!”
The first television appearance they created was called “Off the Wall with Mad Dog and Merrill”. It was sponsored again by Miller, with Pat Smith from Channel 26. These segments appeared before Brewer games. “The graphics were really rough – by today’s standards they were crude,” explains Mad Dog. “A brick wall backdrop opened up and we came out through the opening. It was really cheesy.”
“We filmed from the old Foxes stadium off Spencer Street in Appleton, too, by Foremost Dairy. Pat Smith hosted the “Bowling for Dollars” and we appeared on that show, too.”
Mad Dog and Merrill were the very first guests on the Kathy Keen Good Neighbor Show for WHBY radio. Keen is still doing her show today.
“I was a single guy those first years and there were many times I gave money to Gary to buy diapers for his first born,” said Mad Dog. “Besides, give me $200 in my pocket and I could go weeks on it.” He explained that he was single and living at home, something he shrugs his shoulders on. “As far as real work goes, I haven’t done anything in 30 years.”
It’s evident that nothing can be further than the truth once you meet up with this dynamic duo. With their first-ever 30 minute television show riding out its first season on Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m. on local CW channels, and a product line of barbeque sauce and seasonings being launched at Festival Food stores around the state Oct. 24, the two have plenty on their plates.
Read about the 1990s and their product line in next week’s edition of the County Post East.